Today is a special day for all of us who are active in promoting the rights of children across the globe. This year we are also celebrating the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. When I heard the great news that the Nobel Prize committee decided to focus on the Rights of Children by awarding the Peace Prize to children’s advocates, I was thrilled.
The 17 year old Malala Yousofzai of Pakistan fighting for education for girls and Kailash Satyarthi, of India, a college teacher of engineering turned child advocate to end child labour were chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This in turn highlights this year’s focus on children’s rights and the need for the global community to pay attention to miserable conditions in which majority of children currently live even after the 25 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Those of us who live in North America came to know of Malala after a masked Taliban gunman shot her in the head in 2012. She was airlifted to a hospital in Burmingham, England. With the help of her father, who ran a school for girls, she continued to speak out from the hospital. Under the leadership of Gordon Brown, UN special envoy on Global Education, more than 2 million people signed a petition that led to the ratification of Pakistan’s Right to Education Bill. Malala continued to show her courage by speaking up including at the UN Youth Assembly “ Let us pick up our books and pens, they are the most powerful weapons” she said at that gathering in 2013.
Today, I want to share with you what I know of the work done by Kailash Satyarthi of India where despite many laws, thousands of activists and increased awareness, child labour continues to be a serious problem.
The campaign against child labour has been a long one in India heading back to the 1970’s Kailash started his work in the mid 90’s to free the 300,000 children working in the carpet factories. Through his efforts, many Canadians were taught not to buy a carpet without the Rugmark Logo which certified that a carpet had not exploited child labour in its manufacturing. Thanks to his work, many children escaped, otherwise from their stolen childhood. There are many sectors, which continue to exploit children. Cigarette industries, construction, domestic work, spinning and weaving and brick makers are some such groups
India is the second largest brick producers in the world after China. 41% of the kilns workers in India are children between the ages of 6 and 14. Most brick kilns in India are in the suburbs of the cities, away from the glare of the law enforcement officers and child welfare authorities. Children are employed in every stage of brick making, from mixing clay to firing dried bricks, walk over vast stretches of semi dried bricks, flipping each brick twice a day. Since brick making is done between November and June, they work under hot sun for hours and none of them ever see a school.
Due to constant monitoring and international pressure, the number of child labourers has declined, thanks to Kailash and his group of volunteers. Even the trafficking of children from Nepal and Northern India has come down but we cannot rest reading those statistics as long as children are exploited any where in the world.
Global March Against Child Labour, an N.G.O headed by Kailash says the rates of prosecution in cases of child labour are only 10% in spite of the provisions in the Indian Constitution safeguarding children from labour and provide access to education. Child Labour Act came into being in 1986 prohibiting child labour in hazardous conditions.
Accurate information on the extent of child labour is missing. Indian census reported 4.3 million child labourers in 2011 whereas UNICEF figure for the same year was 25 million and the ILO figure was 40 million. His NGO was instrumental in getting the International Labour Organization to draft a convention against child labour. 172 countries, including Canada have signed on to it.
There are creative reasons used by various industries for hiring children. Just as children were made to sweep the chimneys and enter narrow mines in England and elsewhere in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, the Carpet makers insist children’s nimble fingers tie the best knots. Beedi makers reason that children are the best for rolling the tobacco leaves. The kiln owners say they are the best for flipping semi-dried bricks. What none of them tell you is that a child can be made to work for 12 hours at one 6th of the wages demanded by adult workers. Even though, the Child Labour Act has a list of occupations in which children should not be employed, the Activists say that the list is not comprehensive and implementation is to be desired. So Kailash’s Nobel Peace Prize has put a spotlight in India where they are fighting to change the law seeking complete ban on child labour.
A bit more about Kailash, the person. After quitting his job in 1980, he set up the South Asian Coalition on Child servitude, which now consists of over 750 civil society groups. He launched the Global March Against Child Labour with participation of 103 countries and millions of people. He set up what is known as “ Child Friendly Villages” for the elimination of child labour and universalization of education. In some of the villages, his group started an operation-rescuing girls sold into abusive, forced marriages and help them into rehabilitation centres to teach trades to abused teenagers. He launched the Rugmark, now known as GoodWeave, a consortium of independent bodies for major carpet exporting and importing countries which are part of the self certification process to ensure that carpets are free of child labour. Kailash has survived several attacks on his life during his crusade to rescue children from factories, most recent in March of 2011.
Kailash has been honoured by the Wallenberg Medal, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award. Defenders of Democracy Award and now the Nobel Peace Prize. He is described by family and friends as a humble man, preferring to wear cheap cotton clothes, cook vegetarian meals for his family and write poetry.
So, November 20th marks the day in which the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1989 in which we promised the children of the world that we will do every thing in our power to protect and promote them. We know that millions of children live in poverty including in our own communities in Canada whose voices are not heard and who have been denied opportunities to reach their full potentials. So we have a challenge to commit ourselves on this day. Let us mark this Universal Children’s Day, with the spirit in which the General Assembly voted 25 years ago today.
Post written by UNAC – Vancouver Past President Patsy George
Nov 20, 2014